by CONN HALLINAN
Posted by Bulatlat.com
All frauds have a purpose, mostly to relieve the unwary of their wealth, though occasionally to launch some foreign adventure. The 1965 Tonkin Gulf hoax that escalated the Vietnam War comes to mind.
So, what was the design behind “Operation Moshtarak,” or the “Battle of Marjah,” in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, the largest U.S. and NATO military operation in Afghanistan since the 2003 invasion?
Marjah was billed as a “fortress,” a “city of 80,000” and the Taliban’s “stronghold,” packed with as many as 1,000 “hard-core fighters.” But as Gareth Porter of the Inter Press Service revealed, Marjah isn’t even a city, but a district of scattered villages. As the days went by — and civilian deaths passed military casualties — the number of “hard-core fighters” declined. In the end, the “battle” turned into a skirmish. “Hardly a single gun was captured by NATO forces,” tribal elder and former police chief Abdul Rahman Jan told Time.
Dealing with Drugs
Marjah was also billed as the linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network, and the area indeed has significant poppy cultivation. But according to Julian Mercille of University College Dublin, an expert on U.S. foreign policy, the Taliban get only 4 percent of the trade. Local farmers reap about 21 percent of the $3.4 billion yearly commerce, according to Mercille, while 75 percent of the trade is captured by government officials, the police, local and regional brokers, and traffickers. In short, our allies get the lion’s share of profits from the drug trade.
In any case, the word “linchpin” soon dropped off the radar screen. It soon became obvious that Operation Moshtarak would not touch the drug trade because it would alienate local farmers, thus sabotaging the goal of winning the “hearts and minds” of residents.
In some ways, the most interesting part of the Marjah operation was a gathering that took place shortly after the “fighting” was over. President Barack Obama called a meeting March 12 in the White House to ask his senior staff and advisors if the “success” of Moshtarak would allow the United States to open negotiations with the Taliban.
According to Porter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposed talks until after a similar operation, aimed at Kandahar, is completed this summer.
The Kandahar offensive is being pumped up as a “blow at the Taliban’s heartland” and the “fulcrum” of the Afghan war. Kandahar is where the Taliban got its start and, at 600,000, is Afghanistan’s second-largest city. Whether a military operation will have any more impact than the attack on Marjah is highly unlikely. As in Marjah, the Taliban will simply decamp to another area of the country or blend in with the local population.
However, the White House gathering suggests that the administration may be searching for a way out before the 2012 elections. With the economic crisis at home continuing, and the bill for the war passing $200 billion, Afghanistan is looking more and more like a long tunnel with no light at the end.
Certainly our allies seem to have concluded that the Americans are on an exit path.
Talking with the Taliban
The Hamid Karzai government and the United Nations have opened talks with some of the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party. Pakistan —correctly concluding it was being cut out of the peace talks — swept up 14 senior Taliban officials, including the organization’s number-two man, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The Pakistanis claim they’re simply aiding the U.S. war effort. But the former head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, bitterly denounced the arrests as nothing more than effort to derail the ongoing negotiations.
If Islamabad has a say, the Taliban will have a presence in whatever peace agreement emerges, a fact that has distressed India. Not only is it likely that India will lose much of its influence with the Karzai government — and see more than a billion dollars in aid spent for naught — but its traditional enemy, Pakistan, will almost certainly regain much of its former influence with Kabul.